Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Family struggles to return body to U.S. after WWII crash, decades of uncertainty

AVON - The odyssey of World War II B-24 bombardier John C. Kelley is filled with escapes from plane crashes, an agonizing ordeal as a severely burned POW and a 60-plus year mystery surrounding the crash of a plane meant to return his remains to the U.S.

After years of wondering if her uncle’s remains would ever be found and returned home, Sue Krall has hope she and other family members may finally be able to bring a measure of peace and closure - especially for Kelley’s 90-year-old sister in Arkansas.

“That’s why we’re pushing so hard to bring him home before she passes,” Sue Krall said. “For 63 years, no one knew what happened to this plane. It’s still such a miracle to me it was found. Now I feel like we’re close to making this happen.”

An Avon resident, Krall, 59, supervises mechanics at the Russia Road garage of the Lorain County Engineer’s Office.

The C-47 that carried the remains of Kelley and 38 other Japanese POWs who died near Rangoon, Burma, during the war was finally found by an Arizona businessman in November near the India-Bangladesh border.

Plagued by bad weather, the plane crashed in 1946 on its way to Calcutta. Numerous search efforts over the years failed to find it.

Remains of the POWs, along with the crew and passengers, were buried in a village cemetery where a local tribe, most of whom had converted to Christianity, held memorial services each year.

“I’ve tried to find family members of all 50 people on that plane,” Krall said. “Many people still aren’t aware it’s been found.”

Her “cold calls” have led to people - and friendships - in California, Iowa and Maine.

“I heard from the family of the pilot. It gives you a chill,” Krall said. “We’ve become good friends from exchanging so much information by e-mail and phone calls.”

The discovery of the long-missing C-47 is spurring Krall and other relatives in nine states even more to convince government officials to mount a recovery effort, which can take years to occur. Recovery missions must be preceded by exploratory trips to locate remains, Krall said.

“We’re going to contact all of our congressmen and senators. They spin the wheel,” she said. “If we don’t start pushing, this could end up sitting on a pile of cases for years. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we’re squeaking as loud as we can.”

The family has even submitted DNA from Kelley’s lone surviving sister, Jeanette Graham Seaton, in hopes it will eventually aid the process of identifying Kelley’s remains.

A Garland, Tenn., native, Kelley survived the crash of a bomber behind enemy lines on the Gold Coast of Africa less than a year before the crash that led to his death.

Parachuting from his B-24, “he rolled up his parachute and walked right past Italian soldiers, hoping they’d think he was a clothes salesman,” Krall said.

Accounts of his harrowing escape made their way into the New York Herald Tribune and Reader’s Digest. Kelley’s combat experiences earned him the Air Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross and Oak Leaf Cluster. His family also received a Purple Heart awarded posthumously.

Kelley joined a new flight crew for the Nov. 14, 1943, bombing mission over Mandalay in central Burma, which was forced to a secondary target by bad weather, according to a detailed account of his life co-authored by Krall and Kelley’s grandniece, Leslie Kelley Roane of Garland, Tenn.

After a successful bomb run, the six B-24s on the mission were attacked by Japanese fighters. When P-51 Mustangs failed to respond to radio calls for fighter escorts, the bombers battled the enemy planes for more than an hour before three of the

B-24s - including Kelley’s - crashed and burned. Eight of his 10-man crew survived. Seven men, including Kelley, were badly burned.

Captured soon after by Japanese troops on the ground, the U.S. airmen were imprisoned in Rangoon Central Jail, a one-time British-run detention center in the middle of the large Burmese city. Put in solitary confinement with only a small amount of rice for food and little medical care, the men lingered in agony before a pair of persistent British doctors and fellow prisoners got permission to tend to their maggot-infested wounds.

The British physicians and other POWs were forced to work without antibiotics or medical supplies, and the airmen soon died. Kelley was the last to succumb to burns and infection. He was buried in a rice sack in a nearby makeshift cemetery.

Even though she never knew her uncle, Krall feels a strong bond, thanks not only to her research and communications with relatives, and families of other airmen, but to actual video footage obtained from the National Archives.

“The government documented everything. There was footage of one plane recording my uncle’s plane on a bombing mission,” she said. “It was something to see him for the first time.”

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.

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